Before March, the world of the restaurant worker didn’t look very different than a scene out of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Really. Paris 1927. Same back-of-the-house/front-of-the-house absurdity. Same hard conditions. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential showed the world that nothing had changed all that much.
“We filled a plate with what we could find, and perched on a stool, and gulped the food down amid the sights and smells of dishwashing, with dirty dishes all about us, and the pile of scraps growing bigger every minute as the dish‐washer pursued his merry way. Under such conditions, fifteen minutes is a liberal estimate for the time spent in a meal.” – wrote psychologist Amy Tanner, in the July 1907 American Journal of Sociology, after going “undercover” as a server in a restaurant for her research.
In my last post I called out the structural inequities at the top of the restaurant industry that contribute to an environment that makes systematic change challenging. Now let’s address the operations.
Restaurant work culture by nature creates a serious strain on the health and well-being of the people who prepare and serve food. An article published this April written by researchers at DePaul University along with the Collaborative for Health Equity Cook County, outlines the history and social context of this health crisis, even before COVID-19.
Restaurant workers comprise 30% of minimum wage workers in this country. Turnover is one of the highest of any profession. For these reasons, few employers are compelled to make any real change in the area of restaurant work culture, inclusion, management training, or investment in workers. These shortcomings effect people of color and women dis-proportionally. The industry is more female (53%) and young (40%) with a median age of 31.
Before George Floyd’s murder challenged White Americans to engage head on with the impact of racism, the restaurant industry has had its’ own issues with systemic racism, gender discrimination, and xenophobia. Protesters are demanding change in policing through government restructuring and oversight. Restaurant workers should make similar demands of policy makers and industry leaders to address these issues too.
The COVID-19 crisis has given us a unique opportunity to take time to reexamine our industry, to create better culture on the court, in addition to asking for policy changes at the local, state and federal level to protect workers’s health and well-being. Our industry is the pebble in the water, creating ripples that radiate out into our society and economy. Whatever helps us, helps everyone.
Inclusion and Belonging – The road to better mental health
Trigger warning: I’m going to be really straight here and may ruffle some feathers. White folks tend to generalize the “other” as one big group that hangs together. All black folks have an automatic brotherhood with other black folks (anyone who is black is African American, for example). All Spanish speakers are “Mexican”. There is an underlying assumption that all the other know each other like a tribe or something.
Consider this: If you’re white, have you ever found yourself asking,”why do black people sabotage other black people?” For the same reason that white dude in your office stabs you in the back to get the promotion. It has nothing to do with the shared color of your skin. We talk about “black on black” crime and our government tracks it. Why? Why do we expect people to automatically have affinity with each other because of the color of their skin or the language they speak?
So why are you surprised that the Brown people in your kitchen are not all chummy? Or that the two Black servers won’t talk to each other?
In fact if what we have in the restaurant industry is diversity, it requires much more attention to inclusion and belonging than any other environment. People develop defense mechanisms to shield themselves against racism, sexism and xenophobia. Many of our employees have faced these things daily and survived. Their guard is up.
A culture based on respecting differences, bridging gaps, listening (have someone translate if necessary!), acknowledging can go a long way towards transforming the workforce. While you are rebuilding your team, or if you are just being rehired or hired at a new job, think about what you can contribute in the way of inclusive conversations.
I am committed to facilitating these conversations across teams in the restaurant industry. If you are looking for this in your business, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org